International human rights watchdog the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and its legal partner in Texas are reporting an attempted suicide last week at Dilley Family Detention Center and signs of malnutrition and dehydration among Central American mothers and small children being held at Karnes Detention Center.
UUSC and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), San Antonio, Texas, say the asylum seekers are suffering physical and psychological harm resulting from protracted, unwarranted detention and "prison-like conditions."
Last week a woman at the Dilley center attempted to take her own life. The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, had been held at Dilley since late December of 2014. In January of this year she and her young child both were found to have favorable credible fear findings, a process which allows for individuals to pursue their asylum cases.
"This incident is something that could have been prevented, and unless ICE takes action, this incident will repeat itself," said RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan, in reference to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for the detention centers.
"In response to the attempted suicide, ICE is still refusing to release the woman, instead choosing to separate the young mother from her child, and is sending her to the Laredo Detention Center," Ryan said.
"This is inexcusable. This mother should be allowed to reunite with family in New York. She should be provided with much needed support, not extended detention."
Rachel Gore Freed, senior program leader for UUSC's Rights at Risk initiative, interviewed mothers at Karnes Detention Center last week and found conditions that signal "unacceptable treatment and poor food and water quality, particularly for nursing mothers and small children."
Signs of malnutrition among children, 'hair coming out in chunks'
"As a human rights lawyer and a parent, I am horrified by what I saw at Karnes," she said. "The refugees said they are offered inappropriate food like hamburgers and the only thing they can stomach is the rice and beans and an occasional tortilla they are provided. A significant number of the children are showing signs of malnourishment.
"The women I met all told me their hair was coming out in chunks, even that of their children, and that the water has a chemical taste," said Freed.
RAICES' Ryan said there are several hundred women detained at Dilley to date. The newly opened Dilley facility has capacity for more than 2,000 detainees. Karnes Detention Center presently holds hundreds more women and children, "all of whom are fleeing extreme violence in their home countries," said Ryan.
"These women, and often very young children, have been the victim of threats on their lives or have seen others close to them murdered. These are very vulnerable individuals who deserve the utmost care, something which the Dilley detention center cannot provide."
ICE setting bonds up to $15,000
UUSC and RAICES have also found that ICE has been setting bond rates as high as $15,000 for the women. "To these women, that's the same as no bond, no release," said UUSC's Freed.
With the help of an attorney, immigrants can request a bond hearing to determine whether ICE’s bond is reasonable. "This is why finding pro bono representation for the women and children is critical," she said.
Although judges are reportedly determining final bond fees averaging $5,000, Freed said that amount is still too high for most of the women to meet, even with help from outside sources. "That leaves them in limbo, exaggerating the anxiety and fear for their and their children's futures."
UUSC has issued a nationwide petition, calling on President Obama and the administration to end imprisonment of child refugees and their mothers.
Treatment 'counter to UN Rights of the Child protections'
UUSC believes the reports of poor conditions and treatment of the detained Central American mothers and children are counter to the protections of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The UNCRC requires parties to ensure that children are detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible period of time. The U.S. signed the UNCRC but is one of just two U.N. members who have not ratified it. The other non-ratifying member is South Sudan.
UUSC's Rights at Risk initiative defends communities on the margins whose rights have been violated during large-scale humanitarian disasters and whose rights have been eradicated by genocide, man-made conflict and forced migration. The international agency seeks to humanize the plight of migrants, decriminalize the movement of those fleeing persecution across borders, and protect the safety and dignity of both refugees and internally displaced persons.